by Sonia Mehta
The professor peered through the chain-bolted door. Two men stared back. One wore a military uniform. The other – a dark suit.
“Professor Shankar?” the officer asked.
“It’s past midnight.” She hid her irritation.
“I’m Colonel Cowles. This is Mr. Riggs. We’re with the NSA. That’s the National –”
“I know what the NSA is. What do you want? I’m a US citizen. A humanities professor.” She controlled the fear in her voice, tightening her bathrobe sash.
“You’re not in any trouble. We need your help. Sorry about the hour. It’s urgent,” said the colonel.
“How could I possibly help the NSA? I’m a professor at Ohio State.”
“Ma’am, we’ve already spoken with Dr. Drivell.”
“My chairman told you where I live?”
“We didn’t need to ask,” replied the colonel in monotone.
“Can we talk in the morning? I don’t want to wake my husband.”
“The husband you divorced three years ago, who lives in Baltimore? I doubt we’ll be that loud,” replied Cowles without emotion.
Shankar hesitated. ”How dark are you people?”
“Dr. Shankar, we’re the good guys. And we need your help.”
“Help with what?”
The man in the suit spoke, “Harappa.”
Few words could make Shankar pack a suitcase, put her classes on hold, and travel to the other side of the world. Harappa was one of them.
The professor sat in the back of a white Chevy Suburban. She wore a black short-sleeve sweater and black jeans. Her raven hair was in a ponytail. With forest-green eyes and a slim dancer’s body, she had been compared to Audrey Hepburn.
“Dr. Shankar, when were you last in Harappa?”
“I was a grad student at Cambridge. So, fifteen years ago.”
“I thought you were the world’s expert on Indus Valley Civilization,” Cowles said.
“I wouldn’t say ‘the expert.’ I’m one of them. Harappa’s on the Pakistani side of the border. They haven’t allowed Indians into the country for many years. Unless it’s for pilgrimage or to visit a close relative.”
“Isn’t that a problem? With your research?” said Cowles.
“It’s been devastating. There’re so many mysteries that I’ve been unable to tackle. That’s why I jumped at the chance to go. So my Indian background won’t be a problem?”
“No, Ma’am,” said Riggs. “We’ll take the military transport to Bagram. Then board an Apache to the site. No customs agents involved.”
“How’d you get permission from the Pakistani government to set up a base at Harappa?” Shankar asked.
“Bribes,” Riggs chuckled. “We told them we’re using the cover of Harappa to set up a monitoring base to spy on the Indians. None of the Pakistani bases are close to Harappa, so they agreed. Provided we share our intel. And loads of cash.”
“Harappa is one of the greatest Indus Valley sites,” protested Shankar. “How can you put a base there?”
“It’s not actually at Harappa,” Cowles answered. “It’s twenty miles out.” He produced a manila folder and removed some photos.
Shankar turned on a dome light and examined the satellite images.
“It’s Daniger. Near Harappa. But it doesn’t have the unique architecture of Harappa.”
“We don't care about architecture,” said Cowles. “We’re interested in what’s underneath.”
“General Strait, my boss, wants to tell you himself. He’s at the site. Plus, we can’t say any more until you’ve signed wads of paperwork.” Riggs raised a briefcase.
“What kind of paperwork?”
“A financial contract for your counseling services. And an NDA. You may not write about this archaeological matter for one year. You may not discuss or write about military matters for seven years.”
“Just a standard IBD contract,” said Riggs.
“Insurance Beneficiary Designation,” explained the colonel. “Don’t worry. It’s an unnecessary precaution.”
“Yet, you have an abbreviation for it.” Her eyes narrowed.
Fourteen hours later, Shankar exited a military transport on the outskirts of Danigar. Concrete posts with barbed wire surrounded the ruins of the ancient city. A dozen U.S. Marines patrolled inside the perimeter. Four Pakistani army guards leaned against a Jeep outside the fence, uninterested in Danigar.
Cowles picked up the professor’s suitcase. “We’ll show you to the base.”
Shankar pointed to a two-story concrete building in the middle of Danigar. The modern structure looked out of place in the ancient city. Four Marines guarded the front.
“I’m assuming it’s that building,” she said.
“It’s like Iraq. Dirt, sand, and stone,” said Riggs. “Only more trees. And the temperature’s cooler.”
They traversed the narrow lanes and kicked up a miniature dust storm. Shankar’s boot caught on an object. She kneeled and picked up a piece of claystone. She quickly pocketed the palm-size tablet and continued walking. Cowles noticed but said nothing.
“Why is the Indus Civilization so important to you? I mean, I’ve seen the ruins in Athens, Egypt, Iraq.” He pointed to the rows of brick walls around them. “What’s so special here?” Riggs asked.
Shankar smiled. She had seen this reaction over years of lecturing. “All those places you mentioned are famous for their monuments. Celebrations of kings, wars, Gods. What do you see here?”
“Brick walls,” Riggs volunteered.
“Take a closer look,” she said.
“They are straight. The bricks are uniform.”
“Exactly.” Her eyes lit up. “These walls were part of rows of multi-story houses. The Indus people used urban planning. The streets and walls were perfectly straight. Perfect rectangles everywhere. And everything, every brick, wall, house, and street is built to a one-to-two-to-four ratio. No matter the size. Do you know why there are no monuments?”
Both men shook their heads.
“There were no kings. Or priests. Or soldiers. No weapons. They believed in Mother Earth and natural elements. No gods.” She pointed at a ditch in the middle of the road with a clay pipe.“Do you know what that is?”
“Some kind of a drainage pipe. I’m guessing whoever controlled the area, before we leased it, built it.”
“It’s a sewage pipe. And it’s 8,000 years old.”
The men raised their eyebrows.
She continued, “The Indus built underground sewage, drainage, running water. Some even had flush toilets. These people conceived this thousands of years before any other civilization.”
“How is it we, or at least most of us, haven’t heard of them?” Cowles asked.
“We didn’t know the Indus people existed until one hundred years ago. The more we dig, the more we learn. They knew the universe was expanding. They had a unique calendar based on the Earth’s position in the universe. We still don’t know where the Indus people came from. They disappeared without a trace. As if they left Earth. Their writing hasn’t been deciphered. I’ve tried for years.”
They approached the headquarters. The four Marines saluted Cowles. One opened the door of the concrete building. An arctic air-conditioned blast struck Shankar’s face. Her eyes adjusted to the dark interior.
The smiling face of a barrel-chested man in his fifties with grey, close-cropped hair and black-framed glasses greeted her. He reached out his hand. A powerful grip pulled her towards him. “Dr. Shankar, it’s great to have you here. I’m General Strait.”
She let go to regain her balance. “General, I’m glad to be here – ”
Before she could continue, the general placed a hand on her elbow and led her down the hall. The flags of the four armed services decorated the walls. At the end of the fifty-yard hallway, hung a portrait of the President.
“I’ll give you a quick tour,” said the general. “That’s your room. That’s the conference room.”
They passed another dark plexiglass door with a digital entry scanner.
“What’s in there?” she asked.
The general ignored her. “We’ll meet in the conference room at 0900. After you freshen up.”
“But that’s in ten minutes.” Shankar looked at her watch.
“We have a saying in the military, ‘Shit, shower, and shave in ten minutes.’”
“I can’t do one of those in ten minutes.”
“See you in twenty.”
He rushed off without waiting for a response. Cowles and Riggs followed him.
Shankar entered her closet-size room, unpacked, and showered. She retrieved the dusty stone she had picked up on the way and an index card. Cowles had given her the instructions to log on to a classified internet connection. She took out her laptop, opened a spreadsheet, and examined the hieroglyphics scratched into the stone. She wrote on the back of the index card.
A soft knock interrupted her. Shankar leaned over and opened the door. A diminutive man in a dress shirt and khakis stood before her. He sported a thin mustache and a receding dark hairline.
“Dr. Shankar, I’m Dr. Pinney from MIT.” He attached his name to the university as if neither were ever spoken alone. He looked at her open laptop. “That’s a bizarre calendar.”
Shankar closed her laptop. “Shall we head to the meeting?”
They entered the conference room with a long table in the center. On either wall was a blacked-out window. General Strait stood in front of a giant monitor. He motioned for Shankar to sit next to him. Besides Cowles, Riggs, and Pinney, there were a dozen men and women in military and civilian garb.
“This is Dr. Shankar, our newest team member. She’s our Indus Valley specialist. I’m going to dispense with lengthy intros since time is critical. Everyone here’s an expert in his or her field. Dr. Shankar, what do you know about electromagnetic waves?”
Shankar hesitated, not sure if she’d misunderstood. “I know that all energy moves in waves. There is a spectrum based on the wavelength.”
“Good,” said General Strait. “The wavelength, frequency, and photons determine their properties. Visible light, for instance, is only a fraction of the spectrum.”
“That's interesting. But why –”
Strait interrupted, “A few years ago, we became interested in sigma waves. They have an unusually high frequency and high photon strength.”
He pressed a button, and the dark window to his left became transparent. It revealed a long concrete bunker partitioned in half by a mortar block wall. A silver metallic rectangle, the size of a refrigerator, sat on the far side of the room.
“Let me show you sigma waves.” He pressed another button. On the other side, an unfamiliar device emitted a pencil-thin purple light beam, which passed through the wall and was absorbed by the metal. The silver rectangle vibrated and collapsed like a deflated souffle. The military men nodded with satisfaction.
“What’s the scientific purpose of these sigma waves? I see none,” Pinney spoke.
“The purpose’s to save lives,” said Strait. “American lives. Sigma waves can penetrate concrete bunkers and render WMDs inoperable. No one would ever need to fear nuclear annihilation.”
“No American,” Pinney argued.
“That's who I protect.”
Shankar asked, “If you already have this technology –”
“That’s the problem. What you’re looking at is as good as we can do for now. Ceselinium is the only source of sigma waves on Earth. Incredibly rare. America has enough to fill a shopping cart. A hundred yards is as far as we can transmit. Not nearly enough for our purposes.” Strait looked around the room before continuing, “We’re not the only ones working on sigma waves. We put up a satellite with an electromagnetic wave receiver. It detected the sigma waves. Not from Russia or China. The waves are coming from a place we never expected.”
“Where?” asked Pinney.
“I’ll get to that,” he snapped and continued. “Each day, at midnight local time, a five-second burst of sigma waves is transmitted.”
“To where?” Shankar asked.
The General pointed upward. “Deep space. 1402 light-years to the Cygnus constellation.”
A man in uniform walked around the conference table and placed a sheet in front of each person in the group.
“These are the coordinates of the constellation. There appears to be an exoplanet,” said the general.
“What’s the origin of the waves?” asked Shankar.
The general leaned forward. “Right here.”
Shankar’s chest tightened. Strait tapped on the keyboard. The monitor behind him revealed a satellite photo of their headquarters.
“Here’s the image with an ultrasound filter. It lets us see below the surface,” Strait said.
The cement structure became transparent. Shankar saw a bright rectangular object.
“You built on top of a historical site?!”
“This is twenty feet below us. Don’t worry. We carefully removed the bricks,” Strait said.
“What’s it made from?” she asked.
Pinney spoke, “I presume that’s why I was consulted. The specs I received don’t correspond to any terrestrial material. It’s metallic but not Ceselinium. But its sigma waves are infinitely more powerful than that device you built in the other room, General.”
“Dr. Shankar, did the Indus people have any record of anything like this?” Strait asked.
“They were very advanced in metallurgy and astronomy. But nothing like this,” she pointed to the metallic object on the monitor.
“How do you know this device was placed by the Indus people?” Pinney asked.
“I’ll show you,” Strait said. He walked to the door. “Come.”
The group followed. The general stopped in front of the darkened plexiglass door next to the conference room.
“Dr. Shankar, your hand imprint, as well as the rest of our group, has been programmed in. Please put your hand on the scanner.”
She touched the screen. With a loud whoosh, the door slid open. They descended a long stairway. A metallic crate-shaped object lay in the middle of the room. No top. It appeared to be two-by-eight feet. Shankar inhaled sharply: hundreds of Indus Valley hieroglyphics were carved on the surface.
“Our code breakers used your research, Dr. Shankar, to try to decipher the words. We could only understand a fraction of the code.” Strait placed a finger on a symbol shaped like a roof. Then he touched a symbol resembling three horizontal lines. Then a star. The rectangle glowed. The hollow in the middle became a neon-green haze. Strait took his cap and tossed it into the haze. The cap stayed suspended midair. It transformed into geometric patterns. The haze disappeared. The cap fell to the floor of the crate.
Strait faced Shankar, “Can’t operate this more than that. Unless you decipher the symbols. Did the Indus people build it? What’s it communicating with?”
“You want to turn it into a weapon?” Pinney said.
“I want to understand it.” Strait turned to Pinney. “You don’t know what the box is made of. Your services are no longer needed. You leave tomorrow.”
The general turned back to the professor. “Ceselinium can penetrate a bunker and destroy a tank a hundred yards away. This device transmits sigma waves for billions of miles. Once we tap that technology, we can destroy any weapon anywhere. Your last research paper stated you were on the verge, but then it talked about calendars. Shankar, can you decipher the Indus code?”
“I’m not there yet. Can you give me a photo? I’ll start working on it right away.”
Pinney narrowed his eyes.
Strait stared at her. “Give her the photo. I want daily reports.”
An hour later, Shankar sat at the desk in her tiny room. She had not been honest with the general. She did not trust him. Shankar had broken the Indus code. Certain symbols had multiple meanings which changed on any given day and hour. The code aligned with the Indus calendar and their calculation of the universe’s creation. She held the photo of the ancient cuboid and examined the symbols on the claystone she had picked up earlier. They matched. Shankar carefully studied the calendar on her laptop and the galaxy map Strait had given her. The professor understood the hieroglyphs and the purpose of the cuboid. The sky coordinates were not random. She stared at the claystone and thought, Found you! She knew where the Harappans disappeared.
“That device is a monstrosity. A destroyer of worlds.” Shankar heard Pinney’s voice from the adjoining room.
Shankar wondered who he was talking to.
“It must be demolished,” he said.
Pinney’s door opened and closed, followed by the whoosh of the plexiglass door sliding.
Shankar rushed to the bunker.
Pinney was placing a plastic device on the crate.
“We have to destroy it. He’ll use it to ruin countries. People will die.”
“He wants to understand it,” she said.
“The writing can’t be deciphered. Strait will take it apart.”
“I’ve deciphered it. Once I tell the scientific community, he won’t be able to dismantle it. Too great a discovery.”
The glass panel by the conference room lit up. The whole team was there. Strait smiled. He left the conference room, entered the bunker, and stood next to Shankar.
“Good job, Pinney. Shankar, tell me what it says.”
“I won’t help you make a weapon.”
“You will. We have come a long way from waterboarding. Within a week you’ll talk.”
“I’m a U.S. citizen,” she protested.
“You’re an Indian in Pakistan. Without papers. Your absence will be explainable.”
“General, this is a gateway to unimaginable answers to our past.”
“It’s the gateway to a weapon that changes everything.”
“I’ll give you the code on one condition.”
“Let me try it first. It’s historic.”
“You’ll either wind up on the floor like my cap or disintegrate from sigma waves,” he said.
“So? You’ll have the code. And no loose ends.”
“Write it down.”
Shankar scribbled eight symbols on a paper. Strait raised the paper in victory. Pinney furrowed his forehead and rushed out of the bunker.
Strait entered the symbols. The ancient device glowed. A haze appeared in the opening. Shankar sat on the edge of the crate and swung her legs towards its center.
Pinney rushed back into the room holding the index card. “Stop her! She tricked us. The code changes constantly!”
Shankar slid into the haze. Her body transformed into brilliant white geometric patterns. She disappeared. The haze vanished.
“You’re here.” Shankar’s voice echoed in the room.
The crate stood empty. The general and several people in the room silently mouthed her final words.
About the author
Sonia Mehta is an emerging writer and a junior at a high school in Central Ohio. She started writing poetry as a child, but by high school, while she still loved the beauty of poetry, the writer felt the solitude it imposed. She switched to prose. According to Miss Mehta, “In the world of fiction writing, I am always in the company of the characters I am creating.” Sonia submitted several of her works to the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. They won a gold and two silver keys. Her story “Porch” went on to win a National Gold Medal. Currently, Miss Mehta is an editor of Polyphony Lit Magazine.